Underworld Beauty (暗黒街の美女, Seijun Suzuki, 1958)

“No one can be happy without money” the villain of Seijun Suzuki’s Underworld Beauty (暗黒街の美女, Ankokugai no Bijo) claims, vainly trying to justify his actions. He may indeed have a point, but you can’t buy happiness through selfish immorality. A noirish tale of changing times, Underworld Beauty pits a noble hearted gangster on the road towards reform against his amoral bosses as he tries to ensure a better future for the sister of a friend whose life was irreparably changed through proximity to crime. 

Miyamoto (Michitaro Mizushima) has just been released from three years in prison. His first stop is the sewers where he locates a loose brick he’d been using as a dead drop and retrieves a handgun and a small bag containing three diamonds stolen in the heist which got him sent away. Paying a visit to his old gang, Miyamoto makes it plain that he intends to keep the diamonds for himself so that he can sell them and give the money to Mihara (Toru Abe), the man who was crippled during the job and now lives an “honest” life running a small oden stall. To Miyamoto’s surprise, his boss, Oyane (Shinsuke Ashida), says OK and offers to set him up with a foreigner in Yokohama who is interested in buying blackmarket jewels. Unfortunately, the whole thing goes south in predictable fashion when a gang of masked heavies turns up to disrupt the deal. Mihara, who had come along with Miyamoto, swallows the diamonds and promptly falls off a nearby wall. He survives just long enough to tell the police that he “slipped” thanks to his unsteady legs, which makes his death “accidental” meaning he won’t have to undergo an autopsy. That’s both good and bad for the crooks. The cops won’t find the diamonds, but getting them back before the body is burned is going to be difficult. 

Arita (Hiroshi Kondo), a sculptor of mannequins, finds himself perfectly primed to find a solution because he’s been dating Mihara’s little sister, Akiko (Mari Shiraki), who’d been working as a nude model. Mihara had talked to Miyamoto about his sister and his fears for her in the big city. Feeling his debt even more since his friend’s death, Miyamoto decides to save Akiko from the evils of city life, but finds himself fighting an uphill battle. Meanwhile, Akiko is smitten with the intellectual yet cold Arita, who may perhaps be more interested in her for access to her brother’s body than to her own. 

The diamonds themselves become a kind of MacGuffin and symbol of amoral post-war greed. Having been away for three years, Miyamoto is the classically conflicted film noir hero, a noble yet compromised figure forced to operate in a murky moral universe that is at odds with his own sense of justice. That is perhaps why he tries so hard to “save” Akiko even if she resents his sometimes patronising paternalism that, well-meaning as it is, denies her the agency that is a mark of the age. Mihara warned his sister about hanging out with Arita, suspecting he was a no good guy likely to drag her further into the underworld which he had now escaped, but she sees him as “different” from the men around her, mistaking his coolness for sophistication rather than a possibly sociopathic superiority complex. 

Yet it’s perhaps a sense of inferiority which sends him so crazy about the diamonds. A tortured artist slumming it in a mannequin factory, he resents the way he’s chosen to “sell” his art while superficially laughing at those who buy it. There is something quite perverse in the various ways he is “using” Akiko, literally commodifying her body and turning it into a lifeless object, a simulacrum of “real” womanhood sans voice or agency, all the while planning to use her in order to get his hands on the diamonds. Figuring out Arita may have mutilated her brother’s body in order to dig them out, she wonders if he ever really loved her at all. His sudden declarations of affection and an impromptu proposal only further convince her that what he wants is money. She hides the diamonds inside the breast of a half-baked mannequin, just about where the heart ought to be. Later we spot the poor thing dismembered and abandoned, a gaping hole in its chest as it floats ominously in the sewer, discarded in just the way a woman like Akiko might be if she’d let a man like Arita get his hands on the loot. 

Kidnapped as leverage to force Miyamoto to hand the diamonds over, Akiko loses her fascination with underworld darkness in learning what the “yakuza code” really means. “What do you mean, the yakuza way?” She barks at Oyane, “it’s wrong to kill, you idiot!”. Literally steamed clean and making an ironic escape up a coal shoot, she edges towards a new dawn. “What a beautiful day!” She exclaims, declaring herself not bored in the least, freed from the false promises of the underworld and released from the diamonds’ corruption into the bright sunshine of a wide open future.


North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Kinji Fukasaku, 1966)

north sea dragon dvd cover.jpgAt the beginning of the 1970s, Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honour and Humanity would put the ninkyo eiga firmly to bed, but in the mid-1960s, they were still his bread and butter. Fukasaku’s earlier career at Toei leant towards the studio’s preference for youthful rebellion but with a stronger trend towards standardised gangster tropes than the countercultural thrills to be found in similar offerings from Nikkatsu. For Fukasaku the rebellion is less cool affectation than it is a necessary revolt against increasing post-war inequality and a constraining society though, as the heroes of If You Were Young, Rage or Blackmail is My Life find out, escape can rarely be found by illicit means. Jiro, the prodigal son of North Sea Dragon (北海の暴れ竜, Hokkai no Abare-Ryu), finds something similar even whilst conforming almost entirely to Toei’s standard “young upstart saves the village” narrative.

Jiro (Tatsuo Umemiya), dressed in white with jet black sunshades, nonchalantly walks into his childhood fishing village filled with a sense of nostalgia and the expectation of a warm welcome. The village, however, is much changed. There are fewer boats around now, and the fishermen are all ashore. Arriving at his family home he discovers they now live in the boat shed and his mother doesn’t even want to let him in. Jiro, as his outfit implies, has spent his time away as a yakuza, and his family want little to do with him, especially as his father has been murdered by the soulless gangsters who are currently strangling the local fishing industry.

The local fishermen are all proudly tattooed but they aren’t yakuza, unlike the tyrannical son of the local boss, Gen Ashida (Hideo Murota), who carries around a double barrelled shotgun and fearsome sense of authority. The Ashidas have placed a stranglehold around the local harbour, dictating who may fish when and extracting a good deal of the profits. An attempt to bypass them does not go well for Jiro’s mother who is the only one brave enough to speak out against their cruel treatment even if it does her no good.

When Jiro arrives home for unexplained reasons he does so happily, fully expecting to be reunited with his estranged family. Not knowing that his father had died during his absence, Jiro also carries the guilt of never having had the opportunity to explain himself and apologise for the argument that led to him running away. An early, hot headed attempt to take his complaint directly to the Ashidas ends in disaster when he is defeated, bound, and whipped with thick fisherman’s rope but it does perhaps teach him a lesson.

The other boys from the village – Jiro’s younger brother Shinkichi (Hayato Tani) and the brother of his childhood friend Reiko (Eiko Azusa), Toshi (Jiro Okazaki), are just as eager as he is both to avenge the death of Jiro’s father and rid the village of the evil Ashida tyranny. Jiro tries to put them off by the means of a good old fashioned fist fight which shows them how ill equipped they are in comparison with the older, stronger, and more experienced Jiro but their youth makes them bold and impatient. The plot of Toshi and Shinkichi will have disastrous consequences, but also acts as a galvanising force convincing the villagers that the Ashidas have to go.

Jiro takes his natural place as the hero of a Toei gangster film by formulating a plan to undermine the Ashidas’ authority. His major strategic decision is to bide his time but he also disrupts the local economy by attempting to evade the Ashida net through sending the fisherman to other local ports and undercutting the Ashida profit margin. As predicted the Ashidas don’t like it, but cost themselves a crucial ally by ignoring the intense bond between their best fighter and his adorable pet dog. Things do not quite go to plan but just as it looks as if Jiro is about to seal his victory, he stays his sword. The Ashidas’ power is broken and they have lost enough already.

Fukasaku’s approach tallies with the classic narrative as the oppressive forces are ousted by a patient people pushed too far finally deciding to fight back and doing so with strategic intelligence. It is, in one sense, a happy ending but not one without costs as Jiro looks at the restored village with the colourful flags of fishing boats enlivening the harbour and everyone going busily about their work. He knows a sacrifice must be made to solidify his mini revolution and he knows who must make it. Like many a Toei hero before him, he prepares to walk away, no longer welcome in the world his violence has saved but can no longer support.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Killing Game (殺人遊戯, Toru Murakawa, 1978)

the killing gameFollowing the success of The Most Dangerous Game, the second in what was to become a trilogy arrived within the year and once again stars Matsuda as the ice cold hitman Narumi. Sunnier in outlook, The Killing Game (殺人遊戯, Satsujin Jiken) unfolds along the same pattern as the first instalment as Narumi is dragged out of the shadows to intercede in a gang war only to find himself surplus to requirements.

Narumi (Yusaku Matsuda) has been retired from the killing game for the last five years and now lives a life of poverty and dissipation. Gone are his swanky apartment and stylish suits, now he lives in a bare hovel which is covered in dust and cobwebs, and he dresses like a farm boy in a white vest and jeans with a straw hat hanging on his back. He’s trying to lie low, but gets pulled into the kind of hostess bar he can’t really afford where he meets the first of two familiar faces which threaten to send him back into the middle of chaos. Akiko (Kaori Takeda), now a hostess at Bar Tako, is the daughter of the chairman Narumi bumped off in his last job before retiring but far from bearing a grudge against him, Akiko is grateful to have been set free. The second familiar face belongs to the same chairman’s former secretary/mistress, Misako (Yutaka Nakajima), who is now a mama-san at a bar popular with the local goons. All those years ago Narumi let Misako go in a moment of weakness and now regrets it but attempting to “reconnect” is going to land him right back in the thick of things.

Murakawa begins with a prologue which takes place in the noirish urban darkness of The Most Dangerous Game, but shoots in dreamy soft focus to emphasise that this is all memory before jumping forward five years. Exactly why Narumi has decided to give up a career in assassination is not revealed, nor is what he’s been doing the last five years, but he has apparently got himself an annoying sidekick who, in contrast to Narumi’s intense reserve, does not shut up. The first half of the movie is Narumi and his buddy trying to get by as outlaws including one humorous skit where they get themselves a van with a nudie pinup on the front plus a loudspeaker to humiliate debtors into paying up.

Things take a darker turn when Narumi runs into Misako – a chance meeting that seems almost like fate. Gradually the old Narumi begins to reappear. Deciding to pay Misako a visit he runs into her new man, gang boss Katsuda (Kei Sato), who figures out who he is and wants him to bump off another old gang boss. Narumi needs to get back in shape which he does via the tried and tested method of a training montage, lifting weights and running through the town with his trademark perm returning to its stylish buoyancy. This time around Narumi has buddy to help out, even if he only ends up being a liability, but the same strange dichotomy occurs – he may be an ace hitman, but Narumi is a mess without a gun in his hand.

Perhaps weathered by his experiences, Narumi is also much less cocky and much more unwilling to take a chance on trust. Once again he is betrayed by clients who’d rather not pay up and forced to play a “dangerous game” to bring the whole saga to a close in such a way as to keep both his life and the money. Rather than the surprising and largely inexplicable devotion of Dangerous’ Kyoko, Narumi finds himself torn between two women – the youthful Akiko who is grateful to Narumi for releasing her from an overbearing father, and the jaded Misako whose feelings for Narumi are complex, mingling fear, gratitude, attraction, and resentment into an irresistible storm of ambivalence. Again Narumi’s cool, animalistic aggression seems to be the key to his mysterious sex appeal but this time around there are no flickers of response as there were for the devoted Kyoko, these “relationships” are opportunistic and transactional.

Ironically titled, The Killing Game makes plain that Narumi will never be able to escape his chosen profession even if he wanted to. Without a gun in his hand Narumi is a pathetic wastrel, playing around at tuppenny schemes with his rather dim but talkative friend, and trying to play the big shot by buying out a hostess bar he is entirely unable to afford despite his recent windfall. The setting may be brighter, but Narumi’s word is still a nihilistic one in which he’s conditioned to expect betrayal and the only remaining vestiges of his humanity are his strange friendship with his bumbling sidekick and his ongoing fecklessness at coping with everyday life. Matsuda is as cool as ever in his effortless ability to cope with any given situation and kill with ruthless efficiency, but as Narumi edges ever closer to machine it is clear there is only one way to beat The Killing Game.


Original trailer (no subtitles)